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COVID-19 vaccine cards, the only 'proof' of vaccination, create demand for fakes

Americans who don’t want to get the shot, but want the privilege of showing a card may be tempted to get a fake.
/ Source: TODAY

Heightened interest in COVID-19 vaccine record cards is leading to fakes. No other documents are given at the time of the shot, so many people consider them proof of vaccination.

They’re not intended to be: The cards were designed to serve as an “old school” reminder for the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, though they also record the date of each shot — including the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine — and the vaccine lot number. They have a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention logo, but no security features.

“There’s nothing fancy about them,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore, told TODAY. “I think of them as almost like a souvenir… it's just a piece of paper.”

But since being vaccinated for COVID-19 in December, Adalja has been asked by his employer and two other universities he's affiliated with to upload the card. He also had to show it when he went on vacation.

Beginning the week of Sept. 13, New York City will require proof of vaccination for indoor dining, fitness and entertainment — becoming the first major city in the United States to do so. The proof is the vaccine card — whether presented in paper form or uploaded to an app. The city's NYC COVID Safe app doesn't verify whether the uploaded photo represents a real card, The New York Times reported.

NBC News tech reporter Cyrus Farivar recently tweeted that he was able to upload a restaurant menu to the app as "proof" of his valid vaccine.

Another app, New York State's Excelsior Pass, is connected with state's immunization registry and verifies the information users upload against official records.

Meanwhile, almost 700 universities and colleges are now requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which often means submitting the card.

The CDC advises Americans to keep their vaccination card in case they “need it for future use” and to consider taking a picture of it as a backup copy.

Headlines have called it “precious paper” and “a ticket to freedom.” Then, there are the perks, like getting a free doughnut if you show your COVID-19 vaccine card.

Counterfeit cards

Americans who don’t want to get the shot, but want the privilege of showing a card may be tempted to get a fake, hoping it will help them navigate the world easier.

Fake vaccine cards are being advertised online, NBC's Tom Costello reported. Earlier this year, NBC Chicago discovered blank cards were being sold on sites like Craigslist, eBay and more. Such examples prompted the National Association of Attorneys General to write a letter to the CEOs of Twitter, Shopify and eBay in April asking the companies to take immediate action to prevent such listings.

But the concerns linger. The sale or distribution of fake vaccine cards "poses a serious threat to the health of New York communities," said the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James in a statement on Aug. 6.

There have also been reports of health care workers who have access to the CDC cards taking blanks and filling them out to pass themselves or their family members as vaccinated — “a trend that could have huge implications for the vulnerable Americans these employees serve,” the Daily Beast reported.

Printing a blank wouldn’t even take much effort since a template can be found online. When a local news station in Lafayette, Louisiana, set out to create a fake vaccine card, it took the team 15 minutes. "Since other people had posted their vaccine information online like the lot number, product name, and clinic site, it only had to be copied over," KLFY noted. Americans have since been urged not to share photos of their cards on social media.

Directions showing how to forge the cards have also appeared in online forums.

FBI warns of consequences

The unauthorized use of an official government agency's seal on the cards is a crime punishable by "hefty fines" and up to five years in prison, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said.

"If you did not receive the vaccine, do not buy fake vaccine cards, do not make your own vaccine cards, and do not fill-in blank vaccination record cards with false information," it warned.

This summer, two airline passengers entering Canada from the U.S. were fined almost $16,000 each for submitting fake vaccination cards and COVID-19 test results.

William Kresse, an accountant and attorney who teaches fraud examination at Governors State University in suburban Chicago, and who refers to himself as “Professor Fraud,” wasn't surprised that there was demand for fakes driven by vaccine skeptics and others.

“As long as there is a market of people willing to pay, fraudsters will try to satisfy that market,” Kresse said.

Adalja said a true proof of vaccination should be a smartphone app that's married with your state’s immunization registry.

“The fact that people are worried about fraud is another example of the government not really thinking about this pandemic response in a proactive way,” Adalja said, adding he was dismayed people were buying fakes. "I don't think very highly of someone who pays money for a fake card when you can have the real card and the real vaccine for free. I question their judgement."

When TODAY asked the CDC for comment, the agency referred all questions about vaccination cards to the White House. TODAY had not received a response from the White House at the time of publication. During an April briefing, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration was aware of the reports of fake vaccine cards. "We, of course, defer to law enforcement and other authorities who are overseeing and — and cracking down where this has come up," she said.